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Panel Report: Recent Developments on the Korean Peninsula

On Thursday morning September 8th, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) hosted a new installment of their series “The Capital Cable,” covering some of the recent developments on the Korean peninsula. Moderated by former U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Korea Mark Lippert, the episode featured Korea expert Scott A. Snyder, Director of the Program on U.S.-Korea Policy for the Council on Foreign Relations; Dr. Sue Mi Terry, Director of the Asia Program at the Wilson Center; and Dr. Victor Cha, Senior Vice President for Asia and Korea Chair at CSIS.

Although Lippert intended to discuss both North and South Korea over the course of the 45-minute episode, the conversation surrounding dictator Kim Jong-un and North Korea was so scintillating that the group simply did not have enough time to discuss South Korean events. The core of the talk began with a conversation about what happened to North Korea pre-COVID. The group assessed that, in terms of foreign policy, North Korea’s goals were too expansive. Snyder said it best when he stated that Kim Jong-un “wanted to have his cake and eat it too” meaning that he thought that he could have both a strong military presence on the world stage and prosper economically. His fatal mistake, according to Snyder, was thinking that flexing his military muscles would convince other countries to submit to his economic terms and conditions. However, the threat of nuclear weapons only served to limit the level of cooperation that other countries such as the United States were willing to have with North Korea, and in fact, encouraged sanctions.

One particular meeting that came up many times throughout the discussion was the Hanoi Summit between Kim Jong-un and former U.S. president Donald Trump back in 2019. The summit ended suddenly on only the second day of meeting when the two leaders failed to sign a deal that was based on mutual agreements laid out a year before at a gathering in Singapore. Experts agree that the summit fell apart because the North Korean leader and U.S. President Trump became deadlocked. Kim refused to disassemble nuclear site Yongbyon until economic sanctions were lifted, and Trump refused to lift sanctions until Kim did his part in tearing down the nuclear site. Snyder, Terry, and Cha seemed to concur that the Hanoi Summit caused North Korea to take several steps back in terms of international involvement. Following the meeting, they retracted economic reforms, retreated further into isolationism, and sank deeper into dependency on China – all of which the panel said made for a weaker North Korea.

The conversation then turned to the current state of North Korea, which remains mostly unchanged but also somewhat unknown since the pandemic hit. North Korea is only now starting to relinquish their incredibly strict COVID-19 measures, which essentially erased them from the map. Dr. Terry spoke at length about how Kim used COVID-19 lockdown as a means of retightening his grip over the population. When Lippert then asked each of the experts if they believed that COVID-19 was actually beneficial to the dictator, the consensus was that COVID-19 did not necessarily help Kim, but he certainly “weaponized COVID as a tool of oppression,” to use Snyder’s words. The North Korean leader’s actions in response to the pandemic again demonstrated the “audacious approach” to foreign policy that was the primary theme of the talk: isolationism and military strength may help to preserve the status quo, but it prevents the economic prosperity that comes with open markets.

The group also got into North Korea’s unprecedented ability to make money through illegal means. Dr. Cha mentioned that there must be a large sum of illicit money entering the country in order for North Korea to have survived two-and-a-half years of completely-closed borders during the pandemic. Additionally, they indicated that cyberspace has been a “weapon of mass effectiveness” for getting around sanctions and described North Korea’s economic approach as “parasitic.”

To wrap up the talk, the experts spoke about what is next for North Korea. All panelists agreed that North Korea is undoubtedly still building its nuclear arsenal and intends to again try to use its violent potential as a bargaining chip for greater international influence. There were, however, disagreements on the topic of how soon/if North Korea will need to open their borders further. Drs. Terry and Cha believed that a border opening is not likely to come soon, but at an earlier time than Snyder believed it will. Snyder was of the mind that North Korea is having more success with their isolationist strategy than the other two experts thought. Nevertheless, Snyder admitted that much of North Korea’s future is unknowable, a sentiment that the others acknowledged as well. Furthermore, Snyder suggested that further reliance with China is quite possible.

Whatever the case may be, the bottom line is that North Korea’s three-headed monster of nuclear missiles, intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMS), and cyber-attacks is a very real threat to northeast Asia, and especially to neighboring South Korea.